Reenacting the Battle of Ruigenrode
Simon goes back in time
His officer is yelling commands in French. Simon de Vries flip his rifle, pours gunpowder down the barrel, and takes aim. On either side of him, his companions cock their rifles. Simon is sweating, arms heavy. He can see the enemy closing in. ‘It’s about a close to history as you can get’, the first-year history student and reenactor says.
But history is hot. ‘The uniforms are so warm, especially under the sun. And the gun is so heavy. At least there aren’t any real dying and screaming people.’ Even still, it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like to be in the Napoleonic army at the time.
At least there aren’t any real dying and screaming people
Simon is a member of the Bataafse Gewapende Burgermacht in het Departement van de Eems (Batavian Armed Militia in the Eems Department). This militia existed from 1797 until 1815, and has been brought back to life for these reenactments. It currently consists of twelve people from the northern Netherlands. They do exercises at Fort Bourtange every month and participate in various historical events. This weekend, they’re at the Historical Festival in Almelo. They try to be as historically accurate as possible with their clothing, their behaviour, and their accoutrements.
Today, Simon and six other club members have travelled to Almelo. With only five people on horses representing the cavalry, the army is small – even approximately 650 reenactors from clubs all over Europe have shown up to the festival. That’s nothing compared to the tens of thousands who would have participated in a real battle.
Simon fills the ammunition rounds with gun powder
The reenactors don’t all portray military personnel. There are women, seniors, children, and even babies. They’re all dressed in garb from the Napoleonic era; the period from 1799 to 1815, when Napoleon conquered a large part of Europe. Everything they use has been carefully replicated down to the smallest details. Cell phones and bags of crisps are discretely hidden under rugs or in tents.
Simon: ‘We want to show what life was like in an army camp back then. How people slept, readied their weapons, cleaned, sewed on buttons – there are always so many buttons – made cartridges, cooked their food, etc.’ The festival lasts three days.
The recoil is enormous. It knocks you back
The reenactors mill about in five camps. There are white tents with campfires, hay bales, and little wooden furniture. There’s a traditional baker, a paper maker, a tent with clothes from bygone eras, and a calligrapher. You won’t find any plastic swords or princess dresses here, nor can you buy any hot dogs or ice cream.
Thousands of tourists gawp at the reenactors as they shuffle by. Some of them have camera lenses as long as Simon’s sabre. ‘A lot of people stop to chat. They ask where I’m from, whether my clothes are comfortable, if my rifle is real.’
He loves talking about his rifle. He hopes one day to take what he’s learned about military history and the RUG and become the curator of a military museum. ‘This is a flintlock musket’, he explains. He’s shot it before, at a firing range in Leeuwarden. The recoil is enormous’, says Simon. ‘It just knocks you right back.’ Aiming the rifle is nearly impossible; the round bullets spray everywhere.
His fellow Batavian combatants Willy and Bart are busy rolling paper gunpowder casings as they prepare for the battle they will be reenacting: the Battle of Ruighenrode. To be fair, they’re not strictly speaking reenacting anything: ‘The battle never actually took place’, says Simon, laughing. ‘But it could have.’
Simons musket has turned white after been used
Waterloo or Bourtange
‘Reenactments just show how people used to do things. We show camp life; the way the soldiers lived; the way they fought. That’s what this is all about: going back in time two hundred years. The location doesn’t really matter. It’s nice to be in Waterloo, or in this case in Bourtange, because of the old fort. But it’s not necessary.’
His fellow soldiers interrupt to explain how the Spaniards tried and failed to conquer Bourtange during the Eighty Years’ War, moving on to talk about Chinese kingdoms, the bishop of Munster, and Hitler, only to in the end circle back to the Eighty Years’ War. ‘They’re always like this’, says Simon. ‘They’re nuts.’
His Batavian militia consists of people from various backgrounds. There’s a cook, a lawyer, a poet, and a student. ‘It’s really fun. Most of the people who come here know each other. We had no trouble borrowing some needle and thread from some people’, he says, pointing to a few tents down. There are British, Belgian, and Dutch people here.
My musket was a lucky find
Simon was only fourteen when he decided he wanted to be a reenactor. He already knew that some reenactors took part in films. ‘They bring in their own gear.’
In 2014, he went to the annual reenactment of the battle at Bourtange and knew that he wanted to participate. After a visit to the Batavian club, he purchased clothing, had his mother sew him a shirt, and found his musket on Marktplaats. ‘It was a lucky find. It’s an original, and it’s even from the right time period.’
Today, the militia joins the group they borrowed their needle and thread from. ‘We’re too small a group for people to notice otherwise.’ They’re practising walking ‘in line’. This is important, as it prevents soldiers from hitting their fellow men with a bullet or burning them with the flame used to fire the gun.
‘Napoleon’ and members of the cavalry in the camp
They continue marching towards the large field. The battle is about to begin. The presenter’s explanation about the troops’ movements comes from the loudspeakers set up around the fort. The audience can feel the boom of the cannons and smell the gunpowder as they watch the smoke billow above long rows of soldiers, galloping horses, and women helping out behind the lines.
Napoleon attacks. The officers yell commands, while the soldiers just yell. The cavalry takes prisoners, the infantry kills their wounded enemies on the field. In the middle of it all, Simon fires his musket again and again.
All that is missing are the bits of flying sod, blood spatter, and shot-off limbs. These things are expensive to recreate, and the battle shouldn’t be too realistic: there are children watching.
You have to intimidate your enemy by looking them right in the eye
Interestingly enough, there are very few wounded. Simon feels there should have been more. ‘But when two armies consisting of ten thousand men were facing each other, there were sometimes only a few hundred dead.’ One of the armies would eventually turn and flee. It was a question of who would flinch first. ‘You have to try and intimidate your enemy by looking them right in the eye and not breaking rank.’ He barely noticed the audience, he was so engrossed in the battle.
Now, he’s tired. ‘I was tired before we even started, but once you’re on the field you don’t notice that until you see the people around you go down and your musket stops firing.’ The gun, which weighs four kilos, became increasingly difficult to hold. ‘And then the victory lap at the end! I just hated everyone by then’, he moans.
He certainly doesn’t want to romanticise army life. ‘This is how it was back then, except in reality it was ten times worse.’ He wouldn’t want to go through it for real. ‘God, no! Who’d want to be on a real battlefield?’ Tomorrow, though, the game continues. ‘The allied forces will probably win this time.’